The phrase "the Protestant work ethic" is widely used in contemporary Western culture to designate the belief that work has intrinsic value in its own right and for its own sake.53 This, it must be noted, represents a secularized version of this work ethic; it might more accurately be described as "the post-Protestant work ethic." Protestantism's own rigorously theological reevaluation of the place of work in human life and culture, however, would continue to influence Western culture—albeit in a largely secularized form.
To appreciate the significance of the emergence of the Protestant work ethic, it is necessary to understand the intense distaste with which classical culture regarded work.54 The social patricians of ancient Rome regarded work as something incompatible with their social status. This negative attitude toward work was reflected in early Christianity, especially in the emerging monastic movement. For Eusebius of Caesarea, the perfect Christian life was one devoted to serving God, untainted by physical labor. Those who chose to work for a living were second-rate Christians. To live and work in the world was to forfeit a first-rate Christian calling, with all that this implied. Work was often seen as a debasing and demeaning activity. Such attitudes probably reached the height of their influence during the Middle Ages.
The monastic spirituality of the medieval period generally regarded work as degrading. This widespread stigma against manual labor was pervasive, but not universal. Benedictine spirituality, for instance, created a genuine spiritual place for work within the monastic life.55 Yet the more widespread medieval attitude was that found in Chaucer's Pardoner, who boasts that he will not stoop so low as to weave baskets with his own hands. As the Italian historian of culture Adriano Tilgher concluded in his definitive study of work in the Western world, monastic spirituality never regarded everyday work in the world as anything of value.56 Those who chose to live and work in the world were, at best, "regarded with indulgent charity." Those who committed themselves— either by choice or through lack of serious alternatives—to living and working in the everyday world were regarded as inferior, devoid of any "calling." The Latin term vocation was understood to mean a call to the monastic life that involved leaving the world behind.
From the outset, Protestantism rejected the critical medieval distinction between the "sacred" and "secular" orders. While this position can easily be interpreted as a claim for the desacralization of the sacred, it can equally well be understood as a claim for the sacralization of the secular. As early as 1520, Luther had laid the fundamental conceptual foundations for created sacred space within the secular. His doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" asserted that there is no genuine difference of status between the "spiritual" and the "temporal" order. All Christians are called to be priests—and can exercise that calling within the everyday world. The idea of "calling" was fundamentally redefined: no longer was it about being called to serve God by leaving the world; it was now about serving God in the world.57
God calls his people, not just to faith, but to express that faith in quite definite areas of life. This idea of a "double calling" played a particularly important role in the thought of William Perkins, who insisted that one is called, in the first place, to be a Christian, and in the second, to live out that faith in a certain sphere of activity in the world.58 Luther stated this point succinctly when commenting on Genesis 3:19: "What seem to be secular works are actually the praise of God and represent an obedience which is well pleasing to him." There were no limits to this notion of calling. Luther even extolled the religious value of housework, declaring that although "it had no obvious appearance of holiness, yet these very household chores are more to be valued than all the works of monks and nuns." Luther's English follower William Tyndale commented that while the "washing of dishes and preaching the word of God" clearly represented different human activities, he insisted that, "as touching to please God," there was no essential difference.
The historical transformation of the status of work through this ethic is quite remarkable. In his magisterial study of the status of work from Aristotle to Calvin, Vittorio Tranquilli showed how Calvin's theology led directly from a view of work as a socially demeaning, if pragmatically necessary, activity, best left to one's social inferiors, to a dignified and glorious means of praising and affirming God in and through his creation while adding further to its well-being.59 It is no accident that those regions of Europe that adopted Protestantism soon found themselves prospering economically—a spin-off rather than an intended and premeditated consequence of the new religious importance attached to work.
The Protestant work ethic is nowadays often described in terms of an "ethic of self-reliance"; in this view, work is a thing that is good in itself. The concept of "vocation" or "calling" has been desacralized and now refers to whatever it is that an individual wants to do with his or her life. Yet the post-Protestant secular variant of the work ethic is open to criticism, not least because it has been held to lead to the addictive patterns of behavior often referred to as "workaholism." If work is seen as an end in itself, a distorted set of priorities ensues, with inevitable negative outcomes for social, family, and personal relationships.60 It can be argued that this problem arose from later Puritanism, which often identified people's God-given vocation with work, at the expense of their other involvements and responsibilities in society, family, and church.
Nevertheless, the original Protestant work ethic is itself in need of revision in the light of changing social structures and work patterns. In recent years, it has become clear that the notion of "a job for life" is no longer the only, or even the best, option. Both Luther and Calvin, it can be argued, linked people's work to their existing station in life rather than to the particular gifts God gave them to use. They defined work, in other words, in terms of social function, not personal gifts.
This socially static concept of work or vocation was relatively un-problematic for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; it has now become significantly deficient. One response has been a reworking of the Protestant work ethic to emphasize the importance of individual gifts and their potential actualization in many spheres of life.61 Individuals may thus engage in a variety of "works" throughout their lifetimes, seeing their God-given calling as capable of transfer to different contexts.
The Protestant work ethic finds its application in many contexts in the twenty-first century. Perhaps the most obvious is the phenomenon of "faith-based activism": religious groups using their faith both as a platform and a guiding principle for social engagement and voluntary work.62 Although this is no longer a distinctively Protestant phenomenon, the history of its development makes clear its strong, intentional connections with mainline Protestantism, especially in the United States. Protestant activism, expressed in the Protestant work ethic, is clearly a resource that is likely to play a more significant role in the future if government funding for social welfare programs is reduced.
Was this article helpful?